Putting reconciliation back on agenda

With the increased focus on social cohesion and transformation, reconciliation may seem to have fallen off the agenda, but the authors of the book Rethinking Reconciliation: Evidence from South Africa, hope to restart the conversation.

The book was launched at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in Gardens last week.

One of the authors, Kate Lefko-Everett, said most of the data used in the book was from the SA Reconciliation Barometer – a nationally representative public opinion survey conducted by the IJR every year.

The survey includes about a hundred questions on reconciliation, with face-to-face interviews having been conducted with about 3 500 South Africans in each survey round.

“I worked at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and ran the SA Reconciliation Barometer survey from 2009 to 2013,” said Ms Lefko-Everett.

“With a decade of public opinion survey data, we wanted to bring together some of the country’s top academics and social scientists to look at critical questions about how far South Africa has come in terms of reconciliation.

“It seems reconciliation has slipped off the national agenda. For some, it may be that the term no longer holds currency, as we are increasingly focused on issues such as social cohesion and transformation. Nonetheless, it is clear that there is work that still remains.

“I think we would like South Africans to be talking about the kind of country we want and how to go about making that vision a reality. This has to include conversations about our relationships with one another, our government and institutions, and the structure of our economy. It also requires conversations at a personal level, in which we confront issues including racism, stereotypes, inequality and exclusion,” she said

Ms Lefko-Everett said the book took several years to complete.

In addition to writing, the process included two collaborative workshops, an independent peer review, and editing and production by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) Press.

She said some of the findings from the surveys included that “South Africans closely associate reconciliation not only with improved social relationships, but also with economic justice”.

“The gap between rich and poor is consistently identified as the biggest source of division in the country.

“In many areas of the survey, public opinion is relatively consistent across South Africans of different historically defined race groups. “Our views and opinions are not always as polarised as we might think. In recent rounds of the survey, there was evidence of a growing conservatism among white youth in particular, even more so than their parents’ generation. This group however constitutes a small portion of the overall survey sample.”

Another of the contributors, Sea Point resident Professor Rajen Govender, who is based at the University of Cape Town, said he got involved because of his expertise in research methodology and quantitative methods, “and my ongoing research in reconciliation, social justice and social cohesion”.

He said while this book was largely an academic work, it had great resonance for the real world of contemporary South Africa.

“It is hoped that the book will stimulate greater and new forms of debate about national reconciliation, given where we are in our current socio-political context.

“For instance, what impact do the extreme poverty and inequality in our country have on efforts to achieve reconciliation and social cohesion? Does race matter as much today as it did in 1994? How important and damaging is the recent erosion of public trust in key institutions such as parliament, the public broadcaster, parastatals, Chapter Nine institutions as well as the executive arm of government?”

He said the book raised some important questions about the methods we employed to study, understand and analyse national reconciliation.

Professor Govender added: “We also need to reference reconciliation in our current socio-political and economic reality. For instance, the recent sale of the Tafelberg site in Sea Point has raised some important questions about how poor black people struggle in suburbs where they have lived and worked for decades of their lives. What reconciliation is possible or happening in areas like this, if any at all?

“And if it is happening, is it actually addressing and breaking down power hierarchies between those who are poor and black and those who are white and affluent, or simply further entrenching these? The Tafelberg issue has polarised community opinion, and this polarisation is an important barometer of reconciliation.”

Professor Don Foster said he first came up with the idea to write the book in 2011, but the current team only got going in 2014.

“The editors – in my view – worked well as a complementary team and we got some excellent contributors – the plan being (it changed focus and emphasis a few times) to hear multiple voices on this topic but the main idea remained in place.”